Onwards and Outwards: The future of League of Legends

By Cameron Gilbert, Web Content Developer for Evil Geniuses

Since it all started more than five seasons ago, League of Legends has grown every year at an explosive pace and has shattered its own viewership records time and time again. The North American LCS boasts a consistent weekly viewership of nearly 300,000 simultaneous fans, a regular season match between rivals TSM and CLG went over 500,000, and the 2015 World Championship finals boasted more than 14 million simultaneous viewers worldwide. No matter how you slice it, LoL is still the biggest game in the world and looks to remain that way for some time.

But that’s not to say it’s not slowing down. The gigantic gains it enjoyed in years past have slowed to small steps. Unique viewers for the World Championship have remained relatively consistent across the past three years. And in North America, League of Legends viewership has reached the highest it will probably ever go. With LCS viewer numbers holding steady over the past two years, and now that Riot can scarcely go any “bigger” than Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center, further expanding the audience becomes increasingly difficult and expensive.

It’s time to look elsewhere.

Aces Wild

In addition to the five major regions – Europe, America, China, Taiwan, and Korea – there are seven other regions that compete to earn one of two additional spots in the World Championship. Brazil, Turkey, Oceania, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Japan make up these “Wild Card” regions. Each has their own internal league, and the winners of these leagues feed upwards into the International Wild Card (IWC) qualifier tournaments. Those who advance from these events get a chance to compete with the big boys: a berth to the Mid-Season Invitational or the World Championship.

In the past, Wild Card regions have been treated somewhere between amused interest and outright contempt by fans from the major regions. When Alliance, the top European team in 2014, lost to KaBuM eSports from Brazil at Worlds, it was treated not as a victory for Brazil but as Europe’s most shameful moment in history. Brazil is incessantly referred to as “Bronzil” by fans, and even after their best showing yet at the 2015 World Championship few acknowledge them as a truly “competitive” region. To a certain extent this attitude is even shared by Riot themselves, with little more than passing references to the Wild Card regions appearing in their international-facing coverage.

But if you take a look at the Brazilian League of Legends official pages and YouTube channels, you’ll see a completely different story: view counts in the hundreds of thousands, passionate fans spamming hashtags in support of their favorite team, and production value rivaling that of any major region. If you didn’t know any better, you’d assume that Brazil was one of the strongest regions in the world. Just look at the crowd in attendance for the Campeonato Brasileiro de League of Legends (CBLoL) finals and try to say a single condescending thing. You can’t. Because it’s awesome.

Shining New Spotlights

The same thing is going on all over the world. The Turkish league is second to Brazil’s in size and boasts consistent crowds. Riot Oceania turned the Oceanic Proleague finals into a gigantic spectacle this year that any fan would’ve had a blast attending. Even Japan, without a server to call their own, has seen a massive amount of growth in their domestic league as crowds and viewer numbers continue to rise in anticipation of the upcoming launch. Everywhere you look, there are markets with boundless potential needing nothing but a bit of help.

And in terms of domestic answers to the major regions’ lavish grand finals events, they’ve been starting to get them. Brazil, Turkey, and OCE have all seen some pretty incredible venues in the last year, and the attendance has matched. It’s clear that the local Riot offices have taken the lessons learned in the major regions and applied them at home, adding in some local flavor to make something all their own. And on top of that, the level of play continues to rise across the board – exemplified by paiN Gaming giving the best performance in Wild Card history by taking two wins in the 2015 Worlds group stage. Most prominently, Brazilian star Felipe “brTT” Gonçalves was selected as one of the stars of Riot’s documentary Legends Rising, which introduced a lot of the world to the Brazilian scene for the first time.

Work to be Done

But if you’re not paying attention, you probably wouldn’t know about any of that. When discussing the international state of League of Legends, the Wild Card regions are virtually never brought up except by die-hard believers in their future. The tournaments are announced as footnotes in larger articles, and the regions’ progress is scarcely documented through official channels. Whenever one of the leagues is mentioned, there’s sure to be someone asking “Where can I watch?” because they can’t be found on the official websites.

Most concerningly, the most common way Wild Card-related news reaches foreign ears is when a local fan becomes desperate enough to share local drama on Reddit, hoping to reach the ears of the main Riot office. A common thread you hear from Wild Card fans is a lack of confidence in their local office’s business acumen and league management: accusations of favoritism and amateurism are far too common. Whatever the circumstances, and whether these accusations are substantiated, it presents a less than favorable image to the international community.

International exposure drives money and sponsorship. Particularly for the less developed regions, the exposure gained through international coverage is invaluable. It affords the players more opportunities, builds their brands, and helps legitimize the fledgling competition in the region. The more Riot and the international scenes are involved, the more the local scenes have the opportunity to learn from those more experienced. And the more regions enter the international stage, the richer the stories that make esports exciting become.

Looking Ahead

Ultimately, League of Legends exists to make money. With the help of their esports initiatives, Riot’s built a massive audience in the major regions that keeps coming back for more. But as far as esports goes, that audience is feeling closer and closer to maximized. Meanwhile, the Wild Card regions aren’t anywhere close. Each one comes with its own unique challenges – OCE with its data caps, Japan with its lack of PC gaming culture, CIS with Dota’s near-monopoly – but none of them are impossible to overcome. This is the company that brought League of Legends to Madison Square Garden and the World Cup stadium in Korea, after all.

Too often “international competition” is reduced to only a few participants deemed “relevant.” As long as America, Western Europe, Korea, and sometimes China and Taiwan are represented, that’s considered “enough” by most fans. But there’s a whole world out there. There’s a whole new pantheon of stars – Turkey’s Thaldrin, Russia’s Kira, Japan’s Ceros – rapidly catching up to and ready to join the Doublelifts and Uzis we already know and love. They just need a little bit of a boost to make that final jump.